Facing fear in the cave

Going to the cave was one of the most exciting and terrifying things I’ve ever done. I don’t know if I liked it or if I hated it but I’m hooked, I’ll keep going now. I found it very interesting from a psychological point of view as I got to see my process when in a situation outside of my comfort zone. Apart from the fact that caves are really cool, I want to go on these expeditions in order to face my fears a little bit and see how I do it.

I’m not what you would call an athletic person, I’m not completely a couch potato either, but I’m not terribly agile or fit. I have never gone climbing, and I’ve only gone hiking a couple of times. I was completely unprepared for everything we would have to do in the cave. They said it was a beginners cave, I’d rather not think too much in advance about the next caves to come. So, what happened at the cave was that I did it in a mostly detached manner. There were moments of very intense physical activity when we had to hold on to two walls over a pit and make our way sideways. It’s a technique where you put both feet on the wall in front, and lean your back on the wall behind and then move like that over uneven ground, water, or, in some cases, no floor at all just a gaping black hole. There were also very tight tunnels, where I had to go in arms first and wriggle my way through water and rocks up a tight passage. In all, I think the things involving height without ropes are the scariest ones. I’m relatively small so tight places don’t bother me so much.

It was an intensely cold day, and yet, during the time in the cave I didn’t feel cold at all. Not even when we had to climb up that waterfall. Yes, me, who had never gone climbing, climbed a vertical waterfall,  some 16 feet tall, in the dark, inside a cave. The amount of water wasn’t extraordinary, but it was still strong and in my face. The funny thing is that I forgot about that waterfall, I only remember the second one where I lost my concentration and got stuck and the guide had to show me how to do it and then people helped me up. This second one  was much shorter and should have been easier to climb than the first one. Until someone else mentioned this first waterfall I wasn’t even sure that there had been two of them. So it is intensely interesting to study what went on in my mind at the time. What I remember at first was that we reached an apparent dead end with a wall and a waterfall. Then we had to climb it and I went into ‘peaceful resignation’ mode;  this mode drowned out the possible panic mode, drowned out thoughts and just got on with it.  It’s like the thought process was cut out for some time to make room for body awareness and full concentration. It felt like a matter of life and death and so there wasn’t enough energy to spare on thoughts. Looking back I do remember it, it’s just harder to piece together as they are sensory memories of grabbing rock and being mindful of having three secure points at all times before moving upwards. So, it’s a different type of memory, a memory without words. This is what trauma memories feel like, so it’s validating to be able to create memories like that in a setting of my choosing and in a more or less controlled environment. (note: I went to the cave under the guidance of experienced cavers who had been to this cave many times before and with the appropriate equipment).

When we finally came back to the entrance of the cave we had to wait for some time before ascending to the surface. That is when everything started to catch up to me, it’s like I had delayed emotions and even delayed coldness and stiffness. Still, at that moment I thought, not yet and simply waited my turn, climbed safely out and thanked my lucky stars when I saw the sun outside. Once I got home I took a hot shower, and then had enough left over adrenaline to blow dry my hair and feel like a lady again. Soon after that I started shivering, in spite of the fact that the heating was on, I was wearing sweat pants, and I was wrapped in my two down covers. I allowed myself to feel this emotion, I felt a lot of fear at this time, and decided that if I don’t want to I don’t have to go to caves again. I felt a murmur of panic of being trapped in a watery tight space, and I definitely felt all the cold I hadn’t felt during the experience. I had a massive headache, like my head was going to split in two, and I felt very weak.  There was also the physical exhaustion and the bruising from crawling on rocks. I had an urge to eat honey, pure honey, tea with honey, lemon with honey, I ate it by the spoonful. At first I was too tired to go to sleep and the headache wasn’t letting me relax I took a couple of headache pills but even then it was hard to get rid of the headache. Then deep sleep finally overtook me and I slept like the dead.

So what I think is interesting in this whole process is that I put myself through a very demanding situation, both physically and psychologically; and observed the process as it happened. I separated myself from unhelpful emotions such as panic and fleeing instinct while I was in the cave. I was able to be detached and objective to get through the hard bits. I was also able to cope with the emotional stress that came after the cave, once I was safe and warm at home. The process of assimilating the residual emotions from the cave, that is to say all the emotion that I didn’t feel in the moment when it was created, was physical. That is what the shivering was and the headache and the need for honey; it was hard in the moment but now I feel exhilarated about it. It’s like living through a mini process of trauma and recovery and seeing the dynamics of it in my own psyche. I can do it, perhaps this will give me strength to talk to the shadows that are lurking at the edge of my awareness.

Apparently, we are going to a more ‘advanced’ cave in a few days, I’ll try not to worry about it until I’m there.

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2 thoughts on “Facing fear in the cave

  1. That’s a very articulate description of your process, Luna Sol. I’m relating it to a similar experience, in which I felt fear, in a controlled environment, and was able to find my confidence in being able to handle it. When I got home and collapsed, and emotionally things got pretty dark, I couldn’t understand what it was about. Your description makes sense of it. Brave, exciting, and terrifying. Perhaps it is all part of the process of healing. My memories of the trauma didn’t emerge until after I had conquered my fear in this way. All the best for the advanced caving!

  2. Pingback: On Caving and Courage | Rising from the Abyss

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